• Rachael Cavanagh (Wayila Creative)Source: Wayila Creative
Cultural fire practitioner Rachael Cavanagh is working to bring communities together and make land management more sustainable in the face of increasing climate-related threats.
Rae Johnston

20 Aug 2020 - 11:07 AM  UPDATED 20 Aug 2020 - 1:41 PM

"I'm a cultural fire practitioner. I do cultural burning across my own country, and I help support and liaise with other communities to teach them how to implement those processes. But I work as a full-time firefighter through summer."

This time last year Minyungbal woman Rachael Cavanagh was fighting "hectic fires" on the east coast. "We've just come out of one of the worst fire seasons Australia has ever seen," Ms Cavanagh told NITV. 

She says it's time to think about the opportunities. The 'what now?'. And the many, many benefits of cultural fire practices. 

"The connection that Aboriginal people have to their country, to the trees, to the landscape, to the water - and fire in itself," said Ms Cavanagh. "How good fire is for everybody. It's medicine, and it's health, and it's wellbeing. It looks after country, and it brings in food."

"It does so much that nobody speaks about."

When looking at the modern perspective of fire-fighting, Ms Cavanagh said it's all ultimately about protection.

"It's always about our intent when we are burning - whether it's hazard reduction before fire season or fighting wildfires - it's all about the reaction. We're protecting assets; we're protecting something."

Cultural burning, however, has another intention.

"Cultural burning comes from a totally different space. It's all about caring for country, and keeping those kinship connections alive, and having all of that interconnected - it's not separate."

'Little hope' of curbing catastrophic bushfires unless traditional knowledge is utilised
For over 60,000 years Aboriginal people successfully managed Australia's environment. After what has been called the most destructive bushfire season ever, Traditional Owners want the Federal Government to hand back control to implement cultural land management methods.

Ms Cavangh took on a role as Director of the Indigenous Working Group with the Forest Stewardship Council of Australia to "engage where First Nations mob are at" regarding decision-making around forestry and logging. And it's different across the continent. 

"Across the top end of Australia in the Northern Territory and in Queensland, they have different rights when it comes to managing their land. So there are different projects happening, because they actually have access and ownership of their lands - through land rights and all the rest of it," said Ms Cavanagh.

"The east coast of Australia and down south, all the way across to WA don't have that same access or ownership and responsibility of their forests."

Ms Cavanagh said the National Indigenous Working Group, comprised of First Nations people from all over Australia - including the Tiwi Islands - comes together to work out how to best engage First Nations communities.

"Whether or not they would like to go down that option, and if they did what would it look like, and how would it be sustainable," said Ms Cavanagh, "And sustainable to communities too - not what agencies are throwing around now - but really what mob want."

"So it's that. It's engaging with First Nations people, and it's getting their viewpoint and thier management around their own forests."

Planned cultural burn on Minjerribah women's site a first for all-female team
Bummiera on Minjerribah-North Stradbroke Island is a culturally significant ceremonial place for Quandamooka women. Recently, it was also the location of the first all-women led controlled burn in the state.

During her first Sydney Science Week panel, Ms Cavanagh discussed the impacts and opportunities of fire on this continent to an audience close to her heart. 

"Teaching kids about that sort of stuff - I think it's a pretty special thing to do," said Ms Cavanagh, "I think kids are the hardest audience, too!"

Ms Cavanagh's eight-year-old daughter shares her passion for country, and science. 

"I've got my daughter already signed up for a few different things [for Science Week], she's a real science geek herself so she's like 'I can't believe you're doing this Mum!' - she's all excited," said Ms Cavanagh. "I'll pretty much just tag along to the stuff she's involved in."

"We've grown up in that traditional science space, so for her, it's all natural."

The Indigenous-led fire strategy to protect Australia from bushfire tragedy
An Indigenous-led National Cultural Fire Strategy is a key recommendation of the newly announced Australian Bushfire and Climate Plan. Firesticks CEO and Bundjalung man Oliver Costello says the strategy is needed to both avoid bureaucracy and embrace traditional knowledge to care for Country